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Karyme Ponciano, a kindergartner at Bates School, unseals one of the new prepackaged lunches being served in a yearlong pilot program. Despite Karyme’s wary expression, she said, “They’re delicious.”

SALEM — A food fight is on in the Salem public schools, but nobody is tossing french fries and milk cartons around the cafeteria. In this battle, parents are signing petitions with one hand and making sandwiches with the other to protest school lunches they say are unhealthy.

“I’ve been making my daughter lunches since we had a food tasting,” said Cindy Theriault, co-president of the Parent Teacher Committee at Horace Mann Laboratory School. “I didn’t realize how salty the food was.”

Bates School parents, who also got to sample the new food, are so worked up that more than 80 signed a petition that was delivered yesterday to Mayor Kim Driscoll and Superintendent Larry Callahan. In addition to concerns about the salt and fat content, these parents suggested that one of the reasons Salem is trying out a new lunch program is cost.

“I understand the city and school need to save money somewhere, but it just doesn’t seem right to do it on the stomachs of kids ...” said Trish Rogers, co-president of the PTO at Bates.

The food flap stems from a pilot program at three schools: Bates and Horace Mann elementary schools and Nathaniel Bowditch Middle School. It is a one-year trial, and surveys will go out next week to students, parents and staff.

“Based on the results, we’ll see whether to keep the program, expand the program or eliminate the program,” Callahan said.

The prepackaged breakfasts and lunches are provided by Preferred Meal Systems of Illinois. Students are served individual packaged meals that arrive frozen and are heated in special ovens provided by the company, rather than fresh food cooked or prepared in school kitchens.

“The nutritional value meets all the federal requirements,” Callahan said.

Some of the Preferred Meal food is the same food that was served last year, an official said, but now it comes in individual servings.

“It’s the exact same chicken nuggets,” School Committee member Mike Allen said.

Allen, vice chairman of the school board’s finance subcommittee, said the school system is trying this pilot program because the state is about to require all communities to provide the same meals at each school. This kind of program, he said, provides more consistency and control. These are healthy lunches, he said, and also less costly lunches.

“What parents need to realize,” he said, “is that we have been losing money on the food services for years, and that money comes out of the classrooms. So if we can provide a nutritional lunch and breakfast at a cost savings, that allows us to put more resources back into the classroom.”

Some parents take issue with the nutritional claims.

“I have a suspicion that the sodium levels are very high,” said Anna Chicoine, a Bates parent and registered nurse. One day in December, she examined a typical meal and concluded it was high in calories and fat. She contacted Preferred Meal Systems but said the company did not provide information she requested about the content of its food.

Preferred Meal Systems did not return phone calls.

The most important test for Chicoine and other parents is their own kids.

“Every time my son would buy a lunch, he was dying of thirst,” she said. “In the car on the way home, he was looking for more water.”

In their letter, the Bates parents said they are especially concerned about the high obesity rates in children and the high number of poor children in the public schools getting free and reduced lunches who might not have other options.

“We have to question how this component meal program fits in with the goal to keep our children healthy,” they wrote.

There also are complaints about the packaging.

“It’s hard for a lot of the little kids actually to open their meals,” said Rogers, the Bates PTO representative.

Not every parent is complaining. At a recent meeting at Horace Mann, several parents said their children like the food better than last year. Some schools give it a mixed review.

“I’ve heard good things and bad things, as you hear with everything,” said Ana Hanton, principal of Bowditch School.

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